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What are the North Germanic Languages?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The North Germanic Languages are a group of Germanic languages spoken in parts of Northern Europe. These languages may be further split into East and West, although there is some dispute over which North Germanic Languages belong in which category. The language family includes Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese, and Icelandic, languages which have many commonalities with each other. Altogether, millions of people speak at least one North Germanic Language.

These languages are derived from Old Norse, a language which delineated into several dialects which eventually became their own languages by the middle of the 14th century. Old Norse was widely spoken across Scandinavia, with Icelandic being the closest living language to Old Norse. Faroese is also thought to be very similar to Old Norse, with a collective community of around 70,000 speakers in the Faroe Islands and parts of Norway. The Faroe Islands were at one point under the close control of Denmark, and traces of this can be seen in the evolution of Faroese.

In contrast with the relatively small Icelandic and Faroese speaking communities, there are around five million speakers of Norwegian in Norway and in communities abroad. Norwegian actually has two written forms, Bokmål and Nynorsk. Bokmål is closely related to Danish, reflecting the fact that Danish was the official language of Norway until the 1800s. Nynorsk was developed in the 1800s by Ivar Aasen, in an attempt to clearly differentiate Norwegian from Danish. This was part of a larger movement to reclaim Norwegian language traditions, and it has been a topic of much discussion and debate within Norway itself; currently, the majority of Norwegian speakers use written Bokmål.

Around six million people speak Danish, which is considered to be mutually intelligible with both Norwegian and Swedish, meaning that speakers of these languages can usually understand each other with minimal effort. This illustrates the close relationship between the North Germanic Languages and the cultures which speak them. Danish also includes several individual regional dialects. Swedish is the largest of the North Germanic Languages, with almost 10 million speakers and a number of major dialects.

The North Germanic Languages may also be referred to as the Scandinavian or Norse languages. Incidentally, they are related to English, which is also a Germanic language. This explains why English has many words in commonality with Norse languages, although some of these words are “false friends,” meaning that although they sound the same, they have different meanings.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon238782 — On Jan 05, 2012

@simrin: No, there is no mutual intelligibility between North and West Germanic speakers. I am Icelandic and even I had to learn Danish in school to be able to understand the rest of the North Germanic languages. While there are some things I understand in German and Dutch, there is no way I could even survive a day in either country by just relying on common Germanic vocabulary. I would have to use English.

By Esther11 — On Nov 04, 2011

I don't know much about the Icelandic language. But I can understand why this language is similar to the Old Norse language that was spoken way back before the 14th century.

Some of the Vikings came to settle in Iceland somewhere around the 10th or 11th century, I think. They must have spoken the Old Norse language. Iceland has been kind of an isolated community, without too many other cultures settling there. So the language didn't change too much.

By Clairdelune — On Nov 04, 2011

My grandmother and grandfather were both immigrants to America. My grandma came from Norway and my grandpa was from Sweden. Before they learned English, they didn't have much trouble communicating with each other. So the

Swedish and Norwegian language couldn't be too different.

I learned to speak some words in Swedish and Norwegian when I was small. My grandmother taught us to say some of the manner words, which we were expected to use.

I think quite a few words are similar in the languages of Scandinavia and English. But the intonation between the two is quite different. That makes it hard to learn - speaking anyway.

By SteamLouis — On Nov 03, 2011

@fify-- I think Swedish and Danish are pretty similar too. If you ask me, I'd actually say that all Germanic languages are similar. I think it's possible for even native North Germanic language speakers to understand West Germanic language speakers and vice versa.

That's why I'd rather say 'Germanic languages' in general rather than East or West. Even though they don't all have the same exact origins, these languages have been heavily influenced by one another for centuries. So I think they've come to resemble one another. I'm not claiming that someone who speaks Danish will understand a German perfectly. But they can probably communicate enough to get by.

By fify — On Nov 03, 2011

@turquoise-- If I remember correctly Swedish is the most widely spoken North Germanic language. I know it's spoken by around 10 million people but the other North Germanic languages are spoken by less. So that makes Swedish the most widely spoken one.

A friend of mine knows Swedish and he says that it's actually really similar to Norwegian. He can understand some Norwegian with his Swedish even though he didn't study Norwegian at all. So I think you would be best off learning Norwegian. You can probably pick up on some of the other ones later too.

I studied German and took a couple of Dutch courses as well, which are both West Germanic languages. I never had problem finding tutors or materials to study with. I think finding materials for North Germanic languages is a tad bit harder than West Germanic ones. But I still think you'll have more opportunities with Swedish.

By turquoise — On Nov 03, 2011

I really want to learn a North Germanic language. I'm actually a member of a North Germanic culture group because my parents both have Norwegian roots, although neither speak the language. Sometimes native speakers come to our meetings and I've had the chance to hear Norwegian and Danish at our meetings. I think both sound great.

I'm actually most intrigued by Icelandic, which I believe is the oldest language out of the bunch. But I've never met anyone who speaks Icelandic and I certainly don't know of any places that teach Icelandic so I think it would be difficult to learn it and practice it.

Which North Germanic language is spoken by the most number of people and would that be the best one for me to try to learn?

By Catapult — On Nov 02, 2011

@vogueknit17- I think part of it is laziness. A lot of schools in the US only offer Spanish or maybe one or two other languages, so there aren't a lot of choices. If people go on to take a language then in college, they still don't learn anything besides maybe a little more Spanish. Honestly though I think it would be really helpful for more people to learn something more unusual. If you want to go to Europe from the US, for example, something like a Dutch course or a Danish course or something else less common might get you a job where other people couldn't go.

By vogueknit17 — On Nov 02, 2011

@widget2010- I think that English speakers don't try to learn things like German or Norwegian because they see them as less valuable than Spanish or French; of course, that's not always true either, since in Europe a lot of people use German or Italian as a second language as well, to say nothing of things like Chinese in some parts of the world.

By widget2010 — On Nov 01, 2011

I speak Norwegian and it really is true that it's so connected to English. I found Norwegian to be really simple because of this, and even learned a little bit of Icelandic to see how it was different. What I really find interesting about this, though, is the way that most people in the United States who learn another language seem to try to learn Spanish or French, when German or another Nordic language might be much easier to pick up if you don't know another language already.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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